US President Trump castigates NATO allies on defense spending, but fails to reflect on new threats and rapid power transitions.
By Jolyon Howorth*
Headlines around the world have said it all: “chaos,” “turmoil,” “tongue-lashing,” “ambush,” “whiplash,” “psychodrama.” Donald Trump’s sojourn in Brussels for the NATO summit was seen by the media as more of the bull-in-a-china-shop approach the American president appears to relish. After a torrent of lies and a phantasmagorical defense plan that left NATO partners shaking heads in disbelief, Trump left for chaotic stops in Britain and Finland – where he called the European Union “a foe” and looked forward to an “extraordinary relationship” with Russia. Despite some major steps taken under the radar amid the turmoil, the fundamental work of reconfiguring NATO’s mission and forces for the 21st century remains.
After castigating his European allies – particularly Germany – for “delinquency” in defense spending, frivolously demanding that the 2024 spending target of 2 percent of GDP be raised to 4 percent, and threatening to “do his own thing,” whatever that might be, if the Europeans do not raise their defense budgets to 2 percent by January 2019, Trump declared victory when a “deal” was reached – to work towards spending targets already agreed upon in 2014. He nevertheless claimed that the allies had promised to “up their commitments very substantially” – a proposition that many promptly denied. And crediting his own bullying, he pronounced that NATO after his visit is in much better shape than before.
Trump claimed that the US pays “between 70 and 90 percent” of the total NATO expenditure, arguing that “the Europeans kill us in NATO” and that this is “very unfair” – grossly inflated claims. The US spends 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense – $686 billion – but has bases, military alliances and commitments around the globe. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies has demonstrated, only 5 percent of US defense spending, $31 billion, goes directly to Europe. The US covers 22 percent of NATO’s operating budget – offices, administration, salaries and more. In 2017, the combined defense spending of the European NATO allies, most of which is devoted to the European region, was more than $250 billion. By contrast, Russia, perceived as the main threat, spent just $61 billion in 2017, less than a quarter of the sum spent by the European NATO allies alone.
The reality is, that despite Trump’s charges, NATO’s European member states have increased their spending by $87 billion since the 2014 summit in Wales when the 2 percent target for 2024 was established. This is almost three times what the US spends on NATO. Five European states already meet the 2024 target of 2 percent: Greece, UK, Estonia, Poland and Latvia. Two others are almost there: Romania and France. Four are on track: Turkey, Norway, Montenegro and Bulgaria. True, most other European NATO members are closer to 1 percent including Germany, Italy and Spain, large countries with substantial budgets. If these countries doubled defense spending overnight, it would add $80 billion to NATO’s total. But NATO already accounts for over 60 percent of the entire world’s expenditure on defense. Trump gratuitously threw out a new 4 percent target for NATO member states. Were such a plan adopted, US defense spending would rise to $762 billion, an increase of $76 billion. Other NATO members would shell out $735 billion, an increase of $464 billion. Total defense spending for NATO member states would rise to $1.5 trillion – representing around 80 percent of global defense spending. Trump makes no mention of how this money might conceivably be used.
Trump succeeded in achieving his main objective in Brussels: taking center-stage on the NATO reality show. What is noteworthy is that the Europeans allowed him to get away with it. They walked on eggshells, with minimal pushback, except for statements from the French, Italian and German leaders to the effect that no extra defense spending had been agreed. But nobody challenged the underlying argument that Europeans are not spending enough. Indeed, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a desperate attempt to pacify Trump even engaged in verbal forelock-touching: “All Allies have heard President Trump’s message loud and clear. We understand that this American president is very serious about defense spending.” For fear that Trump would deliver on his apparent threat to pull the US out of NATO, Europe’s leaders declined to challenge him on the reality of the numbers.
Many US commentators, disapproving of Trump’s style and message, stressed the alliance’s abiding strength and the many benefits for America. Others focused on the strategic need for allies to show a united front in the face of their perceived adversary, Russia. There is virtue in both approaches, but they miss the summit’s most important lesson. The problem is not who spends how much, but who does what and where. NATO needs to be radically re-thought because it fails to reflect the necessary reconfiguration of European and American forces in a world of rapid power transition.
NATO’s European members already spend more than enough money given the relatively limited objectives they set themselves – deterring a weak and declining Russia, countering terrorist groups, engaging in limited crisis management missions mainly in Africa, and cyber defense. One problem is that the $250 billion they currently spend goes to sustaining 28 separate armies, 24 air forces and 21 navies. The EU has attempted to take up this challenge through its Common Security and Defense Policy. That project, launched in 1998, was already driven by forceful hints from the Clinton White House that if, in the post-Cold War era, the Europeans did not increase their capacity to secure their own neighborhood – meaning the Balkans – NATO might be dead in the water. US strategic priorities shifted after the Cold War to Asia and the Middle East. George W. Bush and Barack Obama offered the same message for the alliance in the 21st century: Why should Europe remain eternally dependent on Uncle Sam for its security?
There are two hypothetical answers. The dominant mantra takes the view that Europe is structurally and politically condemned to remain existentially dependent on the United States for its ultimate security. That need not be the case. The EU is as wealthy as the US, it has a much larger population with equivalent scientific, technological and industrial resources and potential. It has as broad a range of policy instruments in its tool chest – including soft power – as the US. It is much closer geographically than the US to the sources of its own regional instability. In comparison with Russia, the EU is massively superior in virtually every domain, including military spending. The proposition that Europe is simply incapable of assuring its own collective defense is perplexing.
A second answer to the question involves taking seriously the EU’s official objective of “strategic autonomy.” There is no deontological reason why Europe should cower eternally behind an American shield. Growing numbers of analysts suggest that Europe should gradually acquire the ability to secure its own collective defense – autonomously. Such a proposition is widely considered as reckless. Yet, since Trump entered the Oval Office, many European leaders have stated adamantly that Europe can no longer afford to be reliant on the US for security.
Across Europe, multiple initiatives have been launched since 2016 in pursuit of strategic autonomy. Major US scholars have called for the gradual transfer to Europe of American responsibilities and leadership in NATO. Indeed, lost beneath the rubble of Trump’s verbal rampage were a number of major steps taken by NATO and the EU to intensify ongoing cooperation: a plan to facilitate the mobility of armed forces across Europe and progress on issues like cybersecurity and counter-hybrid warfare. Instead of squabbling over money, the US and the EU should be working towards a more equitable and healthy balance within the alliance. This would be massively in the interests of both sides. It was, indeed, the original objective of NATO.
*Jolyon Howorth is a visiting professor of public policy with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He was a visiting professor of political science and international affairs at Yale University since 2002. He is professor emeritus of European politics at the University of Bath, United Kingdom, and visiting professor at Luiss Universitá Guido Carli, Rome. His recent publications include Security and Defense Policy in the European Union (second edition, 2014) and Defending Europe: The EU, NATO and the Quest for European Autonomy (edited with J. Keeler, 2003). Howorth is currently working on power transition in the contemporary world.
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